I love words.
I love their power to evoke emotions, actions, ideas, images. I love how a carefully crafted phrase can roll gracefully and deliciously like a warm cinnamon bun, or jar us like an unexpectedly bitter orange.
And more, I love that as Unitarian Universalists, we delight in words, and all that they can evoke. We memorize quotations from great thinkers and doers, we wrestle with words long laden with pain, we use as many words as we can to understand our world and the Divine. We continue to find new ways to describe the expansiveness of our extravagant welcome. We continue to explore theological and philosophical ideas in our deep-seated earnestness to understand the understandable through reason and fact.
This is why I am a reader. I want to see how others are thinking about things, describing things, wrestling with things. I love those moments when a phrase catches me and lives in my mind for hours or days or weeks. My vast collection of books are filled with post-its marking pages, sections highlighted, words underlined, and occasionally a conversation with the author scribbled in the margins.
This is also why I am a writer, and why I continue to blog, whether I have one reader or thousands. I love using words and playing with words to explore the joyful, thoughtful, and painful. I love writing papers for my courses. I frankly even loved writing the essays for the Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy (but don’t tell anyone).
I am also a talker. I’m one of those people who best processes ideas out loud. I make decisions best when I talk them through with someone. I love class discussions and small group discussions and Q&A sessions. I love preaching and teaching and leading workshops.
Yes. Words matter to me. To us. Our fourth principle, the responsible search for truth and meaning, relies largely on words.
But are the words we say to each other enough? Is it enough to read each other’s blog posts and sermons, to absorb books and podcasts, to relish in the reading and the talking, to let words rule? What of the UU who says “worship is my least favorite part of being a UU”? What of the UU who says “I dislike music in a service. I’d rather just hear a sermon and some readings”? What of the UU who says “I don’t want spiritual experience, I want to do social justice”?
If we followed their lead, we probably wouldn’t need to come together for services.
If we followed their lead, we could sell off the beautiful buildings and instead build server farms where we host blogs and online books and occasional chats.
If we followed their lead, we would stop being a religion.
Obviously, I am not saying we don’t need all the words and intellectual stimulation. But I don’t think it’s enough.
In 2009, I chaired our congregation’s Stewardship campaign; part of our campaign included a call for pledges of Time, Talent, and Treasure. In our planning, we all agreed that members should be willing to make an investment in all three, but what did Time mean, exactly? Was time the hours spent in Sunday services and at church-wide events? Or was it okay if someone didn’t come to church but attended a small group ministry once a month? Do we ask for a commitment to the one hour a week that everyone shares (as opposed to the many more hours we share in small groups, committees, task forces, etc.)? What of the people who feel like the Sunday worship was a waste of time – a wasteland of intellectual stimulation?
To them I say that worship still matters, whether you think you’re getting anything out of it or not.
Without worship, we are nothing more than an intellectual social club with a service focus. Without worship, we forget how to enact the deeper parts of ourselves, which long remember the rituals of our ancient ancestors. Without worship, we become isolated, away from the interconnected web of which we are a part. Without worship, we lose touch with the sacred.
And more…without all the elements of worship – sights and sounds, touch and scents, words, music, movement, and silence – we are missing ways to access our own Divine spirit, as well as that which we define as Divine that is outside ourselves. We can think about, write about, talk about, intellectualize about this spiritual dimension all we like. But that thing inside us – the divine spark, the soul, the spirit, the human consciousness – that thing needs to be activated and engaged for us to really understand. There’s a scene in The Matrix, where information is uploaded to our hero’s brain:
The scene doesn’t stop there. Lawrence Fishburne’s character, Morpheus, takes Keanu Reeves’s character, Neo, into a room where they actually fight.
Engagement matters. And for most of us, we find that the habit of weekly worship provides the best chance we have of that engagement. And it’s not just about our individual selves getting engaged; it’s about the group experience. For several years, I was what they call a solitary practitioner in the pagan tradition. I held rituals, by myself. I meditated, sang, danced, incanted, by myself. And half the time, I gave up before I had finished, because it felt empty or I felt silly. When I was in ritual with even one other person, suddenly there was meaning. A shared experience. A connection. What I read and studied suddenly became real.
It’s this connection that then leads me on to act. just being with other people in scared space makes me want to be a better person, more engaged, more connected. They don’t tell me to, I feel it. I sing it. I smell it and touch it and taste it. All the books and blogs and discussions in the world cannot replace that.
So what do we do about it? How do we create communities that have room for all of it, such that even the woman who dislikes worship can find and make meaning?
I think back to the question my stewardship team wrestled with – what we mean by Time. As we reimagine what congregations look like, when and where they meet, we need to recognize that every opportunity to gather is both an opportunity to engage our intellects and to worship. And this is more than lighting a chalice before a committee meeting starts. It’s about action – doing something besides talking (like singing or meditating to start the meeting), or taking an intellectual idea and physically applying it to the world (like going down the street and showing the homeless woman you value her inherent worth and dignity). Every time we gather, we should be making meaning, engaging our minds and our bodies. Every time we gather, we should be engaging in worship – in making worth and meaning.
This isn’t easy. it’s one thing to say that the Buildings and Grounds Committee are “stewards of our sacred space” – it’s another to make taking out the trash a spiritual endeavor. It’s one thing to say the pot-luck should be a communing of our spirits – it’s another to let go of the random gossip and griping and actually show care for each other.
But it can be done. We need all the words – and touches and tastes and actions and images – we can get our hands on. Our souls demand it. Our denomination’s future depends on it.